“American Witness: The Art and Life of Robert Frank” by RJ Smith, Da Capo Press, 327 pages, $35.
In the history of the Arts Department of the Buffalo Courier Express, no one of its writers was ever more idiosyncratic or interesting than RJ Smith, who functioned as the late newspaper’s pop music critic when the Courier finally decided to follow its competition into having a writer specifically devoted to the subject.
He has, since the Courier’s demise, gone on to have an uncommonly interesting career. In Los Angeles, he became one of the staff editors of Los Angeles Magazine and, in 2007, wrote an unfairly neglected book called “The Great Black Way: L.A, and the 1940s and the Last African-American Renaissance.” Smith’s 2012 book “The One: The Life and Music of James Brown” was one of the more prominently praised books of the year.
One of his most interesting books, by far, is the just-released “American Witness: The Art and Life of Robert Frank,” one of the most important artists of the last century, now 93. Frank’s 1958 book “The Americans” became, says Smith, “the most influential American photo book and a signal American art work of the last hundred years. ‘The Americans’ has inspired plenty of people beyond the art world as well, far more than museum art usually does.” As Smith quotes him, Bruce Springsteen, for instance, told one interviewer in 1995, “I’ve always wished I could write songs the way he takes pictures. I think I’ve got a half dozen copies of that book stashed around the house.”
With painter Alfred Leslie, Frank also made, in 1959, the movie “Pull My Daisy” “embodying a counter-cultural sensibility long before anyone understood what a counter-culture was.” Most controversially, Frank also shot the notorious Rolling Stones film “(Unprintable Sex Act) Blues” whose scenes of Keith Richards’ drug consumption earned it the sponsoring group’s commercial obloquy. (Mick Jagger: “If I want to go and shred it in the shredder or if I want to put it in the general release, it’s up to me, not up to him. I’m sorry that’s the way we run this country.” (By all means, follow the syntax there.)
I wish the book’s editing and proofreading had been a bit more punctilious. But RJ has here a proper subject for his vehemently thorny self.